I came across the delightful The Shoe Ballet by John Ansell whilst reviewing one of the latest releases from the Guild Light Music Series (GLCD5195). The full review will appear in due course. I had not heard this work before.
John Ansell is recalled for two works these days – the fine Overture: The Windjammer and the pot-pourri of nautical songs that makes up Plymouth Hoe. Both these pieces are available in a fine recording on SOMM 243.
John Ansell was born in Hoxton, London on 26 March 1874 and later studied at the Guildhall with the well-known Scottish composer Hamish Maccunn. At this time he was a regular performer on the viola and achieved considerable distinction playing under the baton of Sir Arthur Sullivan. However his main task in life was as musical director at a number of theatres including the Alhambra, the Playhouse, the Adelphi and the Winter Gardens. In 1926 he joined the BBC at Savoy Hill and conducted the 2LO wireless orchestra for four years. John Ansell died on 14 December 1948 at his home in Marlow.
Ansell wrote a huge range of music that deserves to be at least catalogued. These included a comic opera Violette, three overtures, a set of Danses Miniatures de Ballet, Three Irish Dances, Three Irish Pictures and incidental music for a number of stage productions. There are a number of piano pieces as well as reductions of the orchestral works. A Serenade for cello and orchestra was featured during the 1898 Promenade Concerts.
I do not know if The Shoe Ballet was used for dancing or whether it is simply a musical confection designed for the concert hall or pier-head pavilion. There were originally five movements; however the Guild CD only has three (1, 3& 5). The first introduces the ‘Sabot’ which is in the form of a ‘rustic dance. The second is more romantic and depicts the ‘Ballet Shoe’. Then comes the Court Shoe’ which is in the form of a ‘passpied.’ This is followed by an exotic ‘Eastern’ piece representing ‘The Sandal’ that may have been worn by Scheherazade. The final section is ‘The Brogue’ which is fine Celtic music that has the skirl and drone of the pipes and a Maccunn-like ‘Mountain Flood’ swagger. It is one of the best Irish/Scottish dance in the book.
Philip Scowcroft has quoted TheTimes obiturist (15 December 1948) which notes that Ansell's incidental music 'exhibits a soundness of construction and vein of fantasy which should ensure it the regard of discriminating audiences'. Ansell’s music is typically in the ‘light’ genre, however there is no ‘suggestion of triviality.’
The listener feels that each of the surviving (recorded) works is formally sound and well-scored. Much of Ansell’s music was composed for theatre band or light orchestra, with the attendant limitations. Certainly the recording by Charles Williams and the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra reveal a charming, well crafted work that would certainly benefit from an updated performance.